Dave McMahan, an archaeologist with the Alaska SHPO office, and I are completing the final touches to a paper we have written on the Japanese coins recovered from our excavations (Unimak for me, Castle Hill, Sitka for him). We think it’s remarkable that both sites produced Japanese, but not Chinese coins. In looking at other archaeological and historical data we argue that
[T]he regional distribution of coins suggest two distinct patterns for the Russian-American period. In the north and west, coins are relatively rare and generally of either Japanese or Russian mint. The more abundant coins in the south and east are predominately of Chinese mint, but include the occasional Japanese specimen (Beals 1977). This archaeological distribution is in accordance with what we know regarding the economic history of Russia-America. During the early period (1741-1785), most trade goods arrived in the north Pacific after an arduous and expensive transport from Russian controlled territory. Currency of any type was difficult to obtain, and probably of less utility than beads and bullets. With the entry of British and American traders after 1785, the greater availability of all trade goods, but especially Chinese copper coins, is reflected in the Northwest Coast’s relative abundance of archaeological finds.
So the reason Chinese coins were relatively abundant (at least as documented historically) was because British and American merchants could sail their vessels to the port of Canton, load up on inexpensive manufactured goods, including trinkets like copper coins, then cross the Pacific to trade with the Northwest Coast natives for highly profitable sea otter pelts. The Russians were never allowed such easy access to Chinese manufactured goods. Instead they were required to trade with the Chinese at the isolated town of Kiakhta located in the middle of nowhere on the Siberian-Mongolian frontier. You can image that the Russian traders never wanted to carry much weight in Chinese copper coins when returning to their north Pacific trade.
We think our Japanese coins made their way to Alaska through some poorly documented, but historically fascinating mechanism – possibly a disabled Japanese fishing vessel drifted ashore near our sites, or some illegal trading between the Russian and Japanese started the coins on their journey. In any case, we are looking for more archaeological finds of coins in 18th and 19th century north Pacific sites. I especially think there must be more sites in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia that we need to add to our analysis. I pasted at the bottom of this post the citations we already have. Any one know of sites we can add?
Chinese coins from the Yakutat site of New Russia. The upper coin dates to the Ching Dynasty (1723-1735). Dave recently “discovered” the lower coin when he was reexamining this collection for our paper. We have not positively identified the damaged coin, but we believe it is of Chinese origin.
NW Coast coin references
Beals, H. K. 1975 Japanese Coins on the Northwest Coast. Screenings 24(4):2-3.Beals, H. K. 1980 Chinese Coins in Six Northwestern Aboriginal Sites. Historical Archaeology 14:58-72.
Beals, H. K. 1983 The distribution and use of Asian coins as trade items on the Northwest Coast of America. In Contributions to the archaeology of Oregon, 1981-1982, edited by D. E. Dumond. Association of Oregon Archaeologists, Portland, OR.
Borden, C. E. 1952 Results of Archaeological Investigations in Central British Columbia. Anthropology of British Columbia 3:31-43.
Keddie, G. 1978 The Reliability of Dating Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials with Associated Chinese Coins. Datum 3(2):1-2.
Keddie, G. 1990 The Question of Asiatic Objects on the North Pacific Coast Of America: Historic or Prehistoric? Contributions to Human History, No.3. Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria.